Call of the Wild: Revisiting the Bottom of the Ninth, Game 6, 1985 World Series

don-denkinger-blown-call-19851

Denkinger. Very few names in the history of professional sports carry such power to divide two poles of an entire state.

Thirty years later, here is what we know: Game 6 of the 1985 World Series; the St. Louis Cardinals hold a slim 1-0 lead going into the bottom of the ninth inning, needing only three outs to secure their tenth championship in franchise history. Royals’ pinch hitter Jorge Orta leads off by hitting a squib off the end of the bat toward first base. Jack Clark fields the ball, tosses to pitcher Todd Worrell covering the base, and Orta is out by a full step. First base umpire Don Denkinger, however, calls Orta safe. From there, the inning and the game unravel on the Cardinals, as they surrender two runs in the ninth to lose. The collapse lingers into Game 7 the following night, as the Royals cruise to their first (and only) World Series title with an 11-0 victory.

Denkinger’s mistake was controversial at the time, and has become only more infamous in the intervening years, frequently appearing at or near the top of lists worst umpire calls in baseball history. Athlon Sports, for example, called the play “the undisputed worst call in playoff history” in a 2013 article. Robert Knapel at Bleacher Report rated it at number four. Occasionally, a writer like ESPN’s David Schoenfield or Forbes’ Tom Van Riper attempt to nuance to play’s impact to a certain extent. But these caveats pale in comparison to the play itself, as any defender will readily admit. “Even though it’s illogical to pinpoint the outcome of a seven-game series on one play,” Van Riper argues, “the blown call by the ump is what resonates in fans’ memories.”

As with similar moments in sports that hold such dramatic gravity, it has swallowed all of the surrounding characters and events like a black hole. For years, photographs and televised clips of the play were all that the general public had to reconstruct the event. Today, the entire game can be found online. Fans and interested parties can now dissect this moment over and over again from the comfort of their own computers, analyzing it and reconstructing various hypothetical scenarios based on what might have happened if Denkinger hadn’t screwed up. And these alternate histories tend to fall into two camps. The first, held by most Cardinal fans, posits that the blown call ignited a hostile home crowd and interfered with the focus and intensity of the St. Louis players. The second, from the Royals point of view, holds that in baseball terms the play was ultimately meaningless, and that in the worst case the game would have gone into extra innings.

Denkinger, for what its worth, has tended to side more with the Royals’ point of view. In Game 7, with the Royals comfortably ahead 10-0, frustrated Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog stormed from the dugout to give Denkinger (umpiring home plate) a piece of his mind. While ejecting Herzog, he responded to the allegations of malfeasance with the cool precision of a surgeon: “Well, if you guys weren’t hitting .120, we wouldn’t be here.”[1] While regretting the call itself, he has remained steadfast in the view that the Cardinals had plenty of chances to overcome it and simply failed.

The quintessential element in why the call lingers so boldly for both sides of this argument has to do with the peculiar timing of the play. Taking place during the ninth inning of a potentially championship-deciding World Series game, the call weighed more heavily on the surface than the typical bad call from the regular season. It’s timing even trumps other notorious playoff calls that occurred either earlier in a game, in a series, or in the playoffs.[2] On the other hand, the call itself wasn’t definitive to the outcome. Denkinger’s error didn’t rob a pitcher of a well-earned perfect game, or allow in the tying run in the penultimate game of a playoff series. The call, at its heart, was merely the harbinger of an unlikely chain of events that would have been slightly more unlikely (but not impossible) had the play been called correctly. Because it lacks such definitive causality or definition, and because it opens a unique space for fans and players of both teams to plausibly imagine what if, it remains potent in the collective imagination to this day.

Ultimately, the only definite historical casualty of the continued fascination with the Denkinger call seems to be all of the events that transpired in the wake of it. And that’s a shame, because I consider the ninth inning of Game 6 of the 1985 World Series to be the most intense and engaging part of a baseball game that I have ever watched.

In making this statement, I’m not claiming that this was the best or greatest ninth inning ever played. In fact, I admit that the quality of play in the ninth inning of Game 6 was objectively poor on many levels. No extra-base hits, a missed pop up, a passed ball, ugly bunts, only one well-hit ball the entire inning. None of the iconic players involved in the series even took part. George Brett never came to bat with the game on the line, nor did Ozzie Smith make one of his trademark stellar grabs at shortstop. In a similar situation sixteen years later, the Arizona Diamondbacks walked-off against the New York Yankees with arguably the best player in the National League that year (Luis Gonzalez) singling off the best reliever of his generation (Mariano Rivera). Game 6 in 1985, by contrast, ended with one of the last players off the Kansas City bench who had never consistently started in his entire career singling off of a rookie closer in his first postseason who had been with the team since August.

Indeed, nothing about the ninth inning of Game 6 should have worked. Everything about it seemed cobbled together from a bricolage of spare parts by a mad scientist. Watching its joyful sense of perverse irony feels equivalent to taking in Hamlet performed by fifth graders, or listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.” If the inning was purely fiction, it’s the sort of bizarre inning you would imagine written by Mark Twain or David Foster Wallace as a cruel indictment of baseball’s predilection toward athletic heroism.

What it lacks in coherence and greatness, though, is more than adequately accounted for by a brilliant devotion to subtle drama and rhythm. Elements like the pacing of individual at-bats, every event seeming to happen at exactly the right moment; the timing and content of the broadcast commentary; the look and feel of the televised broadcast; the moves and countermoves happening in the game that reflect the architecture of managing and roster building in an era before every move is efficiently quantified. All of these components, both foreground and background, that contribute to the building of an inning that transcends both the way it was played, and those who played it.

The ninth may ultimately lack the sheer greatness of a Bill Mazeroski or Joe Carter walkoff. But it is intensely and rhythmically satisfying – musical, even, albeit slightly avant-garde. In recreating it here, step-by-step, I seek to free the perverse beauty of this inning from its life sentence as an unwitting accomplice to Denkinger’s crime.

*******

The drama of Game 6 was amplified in part because the rest of the series to that point had been fairly mundane. Aside from a four-run rally in the ninth inning of Game 2 by St. Louis, none of the other four contests had been particularly noteworthy. Kansas City had won a pair of 6-1 games, while scoring a paltry one run combined in their two other losses. St. Louis, while leading the series 3 games to 2, managed to score only twelve runs in the first five games.

The Royals were attempting to become the first team to win the Series after losing the first two games at home. To stay alive, they sent left-hander Charlie Liebrandt to the mound, his first start since epically collapsing in the ninth inning of Game 2 after throwing eight innings of shutout ball. His opponent was Danny Cox, who didn’t get the win in Game 2 but kept the Cardinals within striking distance through seven innings.

Game 6 unfolded in much the same fashion, as neither team could make much headway against their respective opponents. Kansas City would have scored first was it not a victim of their own mild umpiring controversy.[3] The Cardinals stranded two runners in the sixth, while the Royals did the same in the seventh. Nobody breaks through until the eighth, when Herzog decided to pinch hit for Cox with two runners on, and Brian Harper singled in Terry Pendleton from second for the 1-0 lead. The play was especially significant since the inning before, Royals manager Dick Howser decided to let Liebrandt bat in a similar situation, and the pitcher subsequently struck out. The Cardinals had an opportunity to blow the game open with two outs, but closer Dan Quisenberry came in relief to retire Willie McGee with the bases loaded to end the threat.

The bottom of the ninth inning starts with managerial orchestrations. Herzog leaves lefty Ken Dayley on the mound after he retired the Royals in the eighth. In the opposite dugout, Howser pulls Pat Sheridan for Darryl Motley, a power-hitting right-hander who represented the best pinch-hitting option on the Kansas City bench. Herzog was clearly waiting for Howser to pull this move: as Motley ambles into the batters box, and Dayley prepares to deliver his first pitch, the camera hovers on Herzog standing on the top step of the dugout. As soon as Motely is announced as the batter, Herzog begins his walk to the mound. In the St. Louis bullpen, right-handed pitchers Jeff Lahti and Worrell are ready to come in.

But which reliever will Herzog choose? Lahti served as the Cardinals’ closer for most of the season, and had been very successful in that role. He sported a team-leading 19 saves with an ERA under 2, with a perfectly acceptable (though not overwhelming) 5.4 K/9. Late in the season, though, Herzog had been turning to the twenty-five year old rookie Worrell more often than not. Called up in August, Worrell made a successful transition from starting at AAA Louisville to cultivate his mid-90s fastball in the later innings. He finished 11 games during the regular season, posting s solid ERA under 3, 7.1 K/9, while notching 5 saves. The deciding factor for Herzog: Worrell was hot coming into Game 6. The broadcast gives the relevant numbers: 6 appearances, 1 win, 1 save, 0.84 ERA. In Game 5, Worrell pitched the eighth and ninth innings, and struck out all six batters he faced, tying a World Series record. Rookie or not, Worrell was conjuring the élan of Bruce Sutter every time he had stepped on the mound during the postseason.

Walking to the mound, Herzog point to the bullpen and taps his right arm with two fingers: Worrell over Lahti. Herzog’s choice is fortuitous for the broadcasting team at ABC. The production crew keys up an interview conducted with the rookie pitcher the afternoon before the game. As an in-game piece, it’s boilerplate: Worrell is timid and polite in answering inane questions about pitching strategy. The broadcast overlays the interview in a small box next to Worrell throwing his warmup tosses to catcher Darrell Porter. The window look so out of place that it resembles a tear in space and time, where past Worrell looks to come in and take present Worrell’s place on the mound.

In the meantime, Howser opts to pull Motley from the batter’s box, substituting one of his veteran left-handers to try and solve Worrell’s potent fastball.

“So here’s an inning that hasn’t even started, and we’ve already had three changes,” notes announcer Al Michaels. Just shy of his forty-first birthday, the veteran announcer is on the top of his game during the World Series. He already has a dramatic ninth inning of baseball under his belt (Game 5 of the 1972 NLCS), as well as what has become the most iconic call in the history of Olympic Sports (the Miracle on Ice). The following year, he will begin a twenty-plus year run on ABC’s Monday Night Football. For the next twenty minutes, though, his Brooklyn accent and flair for the moment will prove invaluable to capturing the madness that is to come.[4]

The thirty-four year old Orta is Howser’s choice to pinch-hit. A two-time all star at second base with Cleveland and the Chicago White Sox who was acquired from Toronto prior to the 1984 season, Orta was in many respects a quintessential journeyman bench player. After a season as a semi-regular in the outfield, Orta spent much of 1985 serving as a designated hitter against right-handed pitching, which he still hit well (.722 OPS). Howser sees him as the best option available to face the powerful Worrell, even if it means sending Motley back to the bench unused.

The inning begins. Orta takes a fastball on the outside corner for a strike, then fouls off another trying to get his bat in front of Worrell’s lively arm. The rookie pitcher, Michaels notes, is one strike away from setting a World Series record for most consecutive strikeouts over two games.

Orta fouls off another pitch. During the brief repose, Michaels takes a moment to share a charming anecdote with the television audience. Irascible Detroit Tigers’ manager Sparky Anderson, who conducted a separate interview with Worrell on Good Morning America earlier in the week, gave the Cardinal reliever some curmudgeon’s praise.

“Todd,” Anderson said, “thank God you’re in the National League…and stay there.” 

This inane attempt to both fill time and further inform casual viewers about the relatively unknown Worrell should seem strange and out of place. These are the kinds of anecdotes that a television announcer produces while a pitcher warms up, not in the middle of a tense the at-bat in the ninth inning of a World Series game. And he likely would have used this tidbit in its more traditional place, were it not for the prerecorded interview that ABC chose to use instead while Worrell loosened his arm. Michaels had a moment to fill, and he filled it with a brief moment of levity. In terms of rhythm, it presented the perfect counterpoint for what would occur next – a brief calm before the extended storm.

The next pitch, a fastball high and outside, is barely caught by Orta on the end of his bat and chopped toward the first base side. As he races down the line, Worrell moves to cover first base. Clark takes an awkward route to the ball and sidearms the throw, almost pulling Worrell’s foot off the bag as he makes the catch. Somehow, he keeps his footing. Denkinger calls Orta safe, and enters into baseball infamy.[5] 

(We all know this part. Watch the call for yourself if you don’t, but the scene plays out like countless blown calls found at every level of baseball).

After the arguments from Herzog and the Cardinals calm, Steve Balboni walks to the plate. The lumbering mustachioed slugger, who led Kansas City in home runs during the regular season, was in many ways both the ideal and least ideal hitter for the situation in which he found himself. While a tremendous fastball hitter, he also led the American League in strikeouts, and his pull tendency and slow feet left him uniquely vulnerable to a textbook double play at the hands of the slick-fielding Smith or the solid third baseman Pendleton. Nor does the mammoth-chested Balboni look like an accomplished bunter.

“It’s the manager’s job to work within the limitations of his players, color commentator Tim McCarver observes, “and I’m not sure if Steve Balboni can even bunt…”

He’s correct. Balboni recorded one sacrifice hit during his entire career, playing for the Yankees in 1990.

From Worrell’s first pitch, it’s clear that Balboni isn’t going down quietly. He squares up on the fastball before it even leaves Worrell’s hand. Balboni’s swing misses the heart of the ball by mere inches, sending it careening into foul territory on the first base side toward the Royals dugout. Clark and Porter chase after the ball, and it arcs high and shallow enough that either player has a reasonable play. Denkinger’s call was a debacle, to be sure. But an easy foul out on the first pitch would go a long way to correcting in.

Like Balboni, though, Clark is a less than ideal player for his given situation. After spending the bulk of his career in right field, he was moved to first base after his acquisition for San Francisco during the offseason. Never known as an affluent defensive player in the outfield, Clark struggled defensively for much of the season. His propensity for misjudging ball position was on display just one play earlier, when his route to Orta’s grounder made his throw to Worrell closer than necessary. In this instance, Clark should have called for Porter to back off and taken charge of the ball immediately. When he doesn’t, Porter shoots a quick glance over toward the first baseman, and Clark instinctively lowers his eyes to meet the glance. In doing so, he loses track of the ball, and by the time he finds it again in the stadium lights, it carries over his head and into the first steps of the dugout. The lunging Clark misses catching the ball by less than two feet.

This one play, in the abstract, speaks volumes to the subtle considerations of roster management and organizational philosophy, aspects committed to the bookshelf in a high pressure environment like the bottom of the ninth. As the first baseman walks disgustedly back to the infield, savvy Cardinals fans may have considered the events of June 15, 1983. On that day, in the midst of a lost season, the Cardinals traded Keith Hernandez, a former MVP who was considered one of the best defensive first baseman of his generation, to the New York Mets for relievers Neil Allen and Rick Ownbey. Neither pitcher would contribute anything of value to the National League champions two years later, nor was that the intention. The trade itself was a player dump in its most deliberate and inelegant form. Hernandez had long feuded with management in general, and Herzog in particular. In the manager’s mind, he was ridding St. Louis of a clubhouse distraction at a position where offensive capability trumped defensive acumen. Replacing Hernandez was a revolving door of defensively challenged outfielders who improved toe become less defensively challenged first basemen. For the rest of 1983, it was All-Star slugger George Hendrick. In 1984, it was David Green, making the way for Willie McGee to transition to center field full time.[6] In 1985, it was Clark, who turned out to be the worst on defense of the three. And for most of the season, his bat (3.6 WAR) more than made up for any problems he had with his glove (-2.0 WAR). This held up as recently as Game 6 in the previous series. But when he and the Cardinals needed it most, the ability to defend wasn’t there yet.

The calculus is simple. Hernandez most definitely would have caught the ball. Hendrick or Green, while not particularly affluent defensive first baseman, would at least have had the benefit of experience and repetition. Either would likely have caught the ball. Even the 1987 version of Clark, though still a defensive liability, would likely have caught the ball. Jack Clark in 1985, with barely a season at the position under his belt, did not.

Balboni, given unexpected new life, is determined not to waste the opportunity. He fouls Worrell’s second pitch violently into the backstop.

“Balboni trying to hit that one onto the freeway,” Michaels states with a healthy dose of wry.

Balboni_Swing

Again, Worrell has a Royals batter down 0-2, attempting to close the door. As everyone resets for the next pitch, Jim Palmer (also working color on the broadcast) mentions that Worrell (who, to that point, had only thrown fastballs) also has an excellent slider to draw on. “In this situation, if you’re going to get beat,” Palmer recalls from a conversation with Worrell, “you’ve got to go with number one.” The former Cy Young winner seems to want the young pitcher the throw his slider, to outsmart Balboni, rather than overpower him.

Worrell’s pitch is another fastball, this one low and outside while Porter sets his stance up and in. Balboni finally manages to impact the ball, and lines a single into left field just past a lunging Pedleton, sending Orta to second. Had the pitch been a slider as Palmer hinted, Balboni’s swing would have missed for the third strike.

Howser immediately pulls Balboni for a pinch runner, speed being the one attribute of which the Royals’ bench has plenty. Onix Concepcion, a light-hitting infielder who spent much of the season as the Royals’ starting shortstop, takes his place on first. McRae is pulled back from the on-deck circle, and veteran catcher Jim Sundberg takes his regular turn at the plate.

Herzog walks to the mound to talk with Worrell. Lahti and left-hander Ricky Horton stand ready in the bullpen should the manager choose a more experienced option. But Herzog knows, with two on and nobody out, what Sundberg is stepping to the plate to accomplish.

If Balboni and Clark were less than ideal players for their given game situations, then the thirty-four year old Sundberg is in many ways perfect for his role. The Royals acquired him the previous winter from Milwaukee, hoping Sundberg could provide veteran stability to a young starting pitching staff whose average age is just short of twenty-four and a half years old. Though primarily known as a prolific defensive catcher from his years with the Texas Rangers, he also carried the reputation of an accomplished bunter, leading the league in sacrifices three times during the 1970s. The aging catcher still carried this reputation even as his game slowed in other ways.

Sundberg, like those before him, finds his task difficult to accomplish. At first, this is due to Worrell, who misses low and outside with his first two pitches. For the first time in the postseason, cracks are beginning to show in the young reliever’s façade. But once Worrell regains the strike zone, Sundberg encounters a different problem entirely: trying to guide the reliever’s potent fastball into play. His first attempt sails behind home plate into the protective screen. The next bunt takes an awkward shank down the first base line, toward the waiting Clark. The ball has enough momentum that the Cardinal first baseman could conceivably tag Sundberg and wheel around to try and catch Orta at third (a difficult, but not impossible play). At the very least, he has Sundberg dead to rights along the first base line. But Clark lets the bunt cross into foul territory, giving Sundberg another chance.

With two strikes, reason assumes that a bunt is off the table. Another foul ball gives the Cardinals some breathing room with an easy out. Nevertheless, Pendleton creeps toward home as if daring Sundberg to try again. At the last moment, the third baseman starts to back off, leaving an opening for Sundberg should he choose to gamble.

As Worrell reaches the peak of his windup, Sundberg squares around to bunt. This time, he makes enough contact to push the ball toward third base as intended. But the ball pops off the bat with too much force, and strays dangerously close to the pitchers mound. Worrell, perhaps surprised by Sundberg’s gambit, starts to move in the wrong direction. If the ball gets past him, Pendleton will have to charge and make a difficult throw to first base on the run. But the athletic reliever recovers enough to change direction and grab the ball with his entire body positioned toward the Cardinal dugout. He pivots and throws to force out a sliding Orta at third base. Pendleton points at Worrell, mouthing a terse congratulation to the reliever or the play. The quick decision seems to stem the tide of growing potential crisis for St. Louis.[7] 

Sundberg_Bunt

With two on and one out, Howser pulls the trigger on his ace-in-the-hole from the bench. Hal McRae will bat for shortstop Buddy Biancalana.

Were this game written as a work of fiction, McRae’s at-bat would be the logical narrative place for the inning’s climax. Walking to the plate is the lineup regular relegated to the bench with no DH in the World Series. He is the oldest member of the team at age thirty-nine, nearing the end of a distinguished career. McRae is the longest-tenured player on the Royals, having arrived via trade from Cincinnati in November 1972, beating George Brett into a Kansas City uniform by a little less than a year. He brings the weight of playoff disappointment to the plate: three consecutive ALCS losses to the Yankees, a World Series miss in 1980 against Philadelphia, coupled with another ALCS flameout against Detroit the year before. With the winning run at first, it’s the perfect spot for redemption.

Michaels, not content to stand by and let the drama unfold on its own, drops this little reminder onto us: “Hal came up the other night, and grounded out with the bases loaded.” Well, yes. In the seventh inning of Game 4, McRae pinch hit and grounded out with the bases loaded. The Royals never threatened again and went on to lose 3-0. It’s a subtle touch, adding one more five to the top of an already teetering house of historical cards.

By all accounts, this should be McRae’s Roy Hobbs moment. But such is the brilliance of the ninth that it deceives us at the moment we least expect it. What should have been the textbook narrative of a final act ended as the least compelling moment of the entire inning.

After taking the first pitch low and outside for a ball, the apparent cracks in Worrell’s pitching start to blow apart. Having missed low with his fastball twice to Sundberg, and now to McRae, Worrell chooses this moment to throw his first breaking ball of the inning. Conceptually, the idea is sound: throw something different, maybe get McRae to chase a bad pitch in a big moment, though the veteran is one of the most patient hitters on the team. But as with most elements in the ninth, execution is lacking. The ball breaks outside nearly a foot from where Porter sets up, and the catcher chooses to move his glove to the right at the last moment instead of drop to his knees and block with his body. Perhaps expecting a fastball, the slider surprises him and the wear of almost 1,500 games as a major league catcher keeps him from moving to his knees in time.

Whatever the reason, the ball glances away before Porter can recover, and the runners move up.

Runners are now on second and third with one out. One bad call and several small errors, alone of little significance, have put a winnable game for the Cardinals in danger. There is no chance that Herzog allows McRae to hit under these circumstances. With Quisenberry due up next, pitching coach Hal Lainer raises four fingers from the dugout, signaling Worrell to put McRae on first.

“This is some boring World Series, isn’t it?” Michaels delivers a sharp quip, a comment dripping in sarcasm toward sportswriters who had found the series lacking in engaging situations to that point.

The bases are now loaded, with one out. Howser must once again dip into his depleted bench. One option comes off the table when he sends in John Wathan to pinch-run for McRae. This leaves Howser with the trio of Greg Pryor, Lynn Jones, and Dane Iorg, a group possessing 432 regular season plate appearances and a combined OPS+ of just under 53 (100 represents the major league average) for the season. Jones possesses two extra base hits in three World Series at bats, but is right-handed and doesn’t play the matchup. Iorg is the only left-handed bat remaining, and thus sent out to the on-deck circle before the intentional walk of McRae is even finished.

Iorg, like Orta before him, is one of the many middle-aged journeymen populating the Kansas City bench. Unlike Orta, there are no all-star appearances in his past to fall back on. At thirty-five years old, Iorg represents one of a myriad of former first round picks that never panned out as intended. The irony is that much of his career was spent as a left-handed bench specialist with the Cardinals. The Royals purchased his contract from St. Louis in May 1984, but Iorg hadn’t shown much in his year and a half with the team and was nearing the end of the line.

From a narrative perspective, the choice is both brilliant and sublime. Only those obsessive baseball fans aware of the underlying details behind Iorg’s career would know why. To understand, one must journey back to three years earlier, when the Cardinals had last appeared in the World Series. Opponent Milwaukee came in with the better regular season record, dictating that the entire series would be played with the American League’s designated hitter rule. Iorg was tapped to DH for the Cardinals in games where the Brewers started a right-hander, when he would otherwise have remained a pinch hitter. The left hander responded with one of the finest stretches of his entire career: 5 games, 4 doubles and a triple, 4 runs, and an astronomical 1.412 OPS. St. Louis won the series in seven games. This same rule, mind you, that made Iorg a folk hero in 1982 had relegated McRae to the bench in the current World Series. After 1985, it would never be utilized again, each league’s rules instead dictating play in the corresponding team’s home stadium.

Granted, it’s a more esoteric storyline than the one McRae provided, but it was perfect for the avant-garde feel and rhythm of the ninth. I’ve always imagined Cardinals familiar with Iorg’s history must have watched his appearance with great apprehension, far more than his empirical abilities would have warranted.

The ultimate decision for how events will proceed still sits with Herzog, though. He must know that Iorg has shown little ability to hit left-handed pitching throughout his career (.496 OPS in 150 ABs). In the bullpen, left-hander Ricky Horton, who held left-handed batters like Iorg to a .508 OPS in 1985, was warm and ready. Worrell wasn’t getting the low strike, had just thrown a passed ball, and was looking shakier with every pitch. In the NLCS, Herzog had watched Dodgers closer Tom Niedenfeuer – a pitcher the same age and type as Worrell – fall apart under similar circumstances. The book screams for Herzog to make the switch. Even Palmer, the veteran of several World Series himself, thinks the same thing – “with Iorg coming up, will Herzog come out?”

But Herzog decides to stick with Worrell, perhaps thinking that he is due for some luck in an inning that has thus far given him none. His only decision is to align the infield at double play depth, hoping that Worrell can squeeze the needed grounder to end the threat and the series in one gesture.

Iorg takes his time before stepping into the batters box, backed by the ambient sonic electricity of the crowd. McCarver tries to explain the various scenarios that a ground ball could elicit, but the crowd is so loud at this point that it’s almost impossible to hear him. (Score one for the muddiness of analog). Indicating his readiness, Iorg knocks his bat in front of home plate and steps into his stance.

Worrell delivers the first pitch for a ball. Yet another miss low, aimed for the bottom corner of the strike zone. The television cameras now take over, giving a short montage in preparation for the next pitch: Iorg backs out and expels an uninterpretable utterance from his mouth; Howser stares at the lineup card pasted to the wall of the Kansas City dugout; Worrell sets himself, showing no indication that the weight of the moment is getting to him; Wathan takes a lengthy lead off of first base, one foot firmly on the turf.

And then it comes.

Worrell pulls back inside with a fastball that hangs high at Iorg’s waist. After so many low fastballs, the strategy may be to jam the lefty and surprise him while looking for the low, double-play inducing strike. Iorg, though, just manages to tag the ball on the thinnest part of the bat. As it flops into the air away from the box, the bat makes a tinted, snapping sound like the breaking of a twig. Not the heroic movie crack that I had heard in my head when imagining the play as a kid, but something almost pathetic and disheartening. In retrospect, the sound is almost unworthy of the moment with which it’s associated.

Michaels again takes over the momentum with his call of the play. And that’s a looper into right field for a base hit. Concepcion scores [barely audible]. Here comes Sundberg…”

Iorg’s hit dies in shallow right field. Tom Herr, playing close to second base at double play depth, has no chance at it. The camera moves to show Concepcion jogging across home plate to tie the game. Shifting back into the outfield, it tries to ascertain the fate of Iorg’s timely squib.

r2e82

A new, smaller game within unfolds as Sundberg turns the corner for home with the winning run in his pocket. Andy Van Slyke is stationed in right field after pinch running for César Cedeño in the eighth. Had he been playing at normal position and depth, he would have been able to hold a runner as aged as Sundberg at third with ease. However, Van Slyke had shifted toward center field, and needed to cover a great deal of ground in order to get to the ball. He catches a small break when the ball impacts with the artificial turf, taking a high and charitable bounce toward him. On grass, he would have had no chance to reach the ball in time. But the turf that had graced the surface of Royals Stadium since its opening in 1973 gives Van Slyke an opportunity to make a play on Sundberg at the plate. And given the power of his arm, he could yet save the Cardinals from both Denkinger and themselves.

“…here’s the throw…”

Van Slyke throws the ball with such force that he summersaults onto his back. The camera tracks the beautiful arc as it careens toward Porter, who is waiting about two feet in front of home plate.

By this point, Sundberg is nearly halfway down the third base line. As any veteran baserunner would do in a similar situation, he takes a wide route around the outside of the line. Noticing that Porter isn’t standing directly in his path, Sundberg’s intention is to make a textbook slide behind that plate would force the execution of an awkward, blind lunge when attempting a tag.

The ball arrives and Porter catches it on the fly from his knees. Sundberg leaps headfirst from the cusp where the turf meets the dirt, losing his helmet in the process. The left arm extends toward the plate, in many ways the only by-the-book baseball moment to be found during the entire inning.

“…he SCORES…”

Sundberg_Slide

Michaels exudes two sides of the commentator’s milieu in consecutive syllables. Caught up in the thrill of the moment with the first, trying to reign in and reestablish a degree of professional objectivity with the second. This is impossible to convey in writing. You just have to hear it for yourself.

“…we go to a seventh…” 

A more nuanced melding of the two. Vin Scully couldn’t have done it any better.[8]

On the field, Sundberg leaps from his stomach into the waiting arms of Biancalana and Lonnie Smith. In front of them, Porter turns to glare at home plate umpire Jim Quick, stunned that his tag didn’t connect with Sundberg’s leg in time.

As the celebration begins, nobody in the broadcast booth says a word. Not that they could cut through the frenzied sound emanating from the stands if they even wanted. In the absence of commentary, the cameras take over, documenting the seismic aftermath of what had just unfolded with a spooky and precise rhythm: Worrell walking with terse rhythm back to the Cardinal dugout, looking down at the turf in mild disgust; Players from Kansas City bench clustering around Sundberg at home and Iorg at first; a close up of injured rookie outfielder Vince Coleman sitting in the dugout, staring out onto the field.[9]

One minute and twelve seconds pass between the moment when Michaels declares the seventh game as Sundberg slides into home, and when McCarver finally breaks the silence and starts to reconstruct the final sequence for the television audience. One would expect such quiet reverence for the deciding game of the season, with the winning team celebrating their spoils on the field. Indeed, if you were watching on television, the moment plays as if the Royals had just dramatically won the world championship. That’s the most compelling aspect of that one minute and twelve seconds containing nothing but pure atmosphere. But all Kansas City had won was admission to a winner-takes-all seventh game at home the following night, facing the specter of solving Cardinal ace John Tudor, who had stymied them to that point.

There is no wonder that Game 7 was unable or unwilling to recapture the same strange vigor as its predecessor. How could it? And as expected, the narrative it presented was as simple as Game 6 was complex. Bret Saberhagen was unhittable. Tudor and five other Cardinals pitchers were not.

******

You would figure that an inning with the level of intrigue and excitement as the ninth would reside in the collective memory of baseball fans for a generation or more. Like the Mazeroski homer, or Schilling’s bloody sock, it would become a “where were you” type of moment, something by which to compare all the ninth innings of future Worlds’ Series. As it turns out, the ninth inning of Game 6 was all but forgotten outside of the state of Missouri within a calendar year. Replacing it was another ninth inning of another Game 6 that resembled the previous years in many ways: poor execution, unknown contributors, a young relief ace melting down, and an epic blunder. What did 1986 have that 1985 did not? The Boston Red Sox, a long suffering franchise on the cusp of victory coming up short yet again, as they had every year to that point since 1918. Suffice it to say, any immortality accumulated by Orta, Clark, Worrell, Iorg, even Denkinger slid from public memory along with the ball skipped through the legs of Bill Buckner.

Looking back, it’s hard to imagine an inning like the bottom of the ninth in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series happening in 2015, particularly in the postseason. For starters, the modern establishment of instant replay would have corrected Denkinger’s call on Orta’s ground ball. Then there are the more complex tactical considerations that go into the late innings of modern baseball games. Clark would likely have been pulled from the game for defensive purposes, leaving a more able glove to handle Balboni’s pop foul. An infield shift would almost certainly been employed for a hitter with the pull tendencies of Balboni, decreasing the chances that his ground ball would have popped through into the outfield. Even modern roster construction would be a factor. The Royals bench wouldn’t have been teeming with past-their-prime veterans sporting intriguing pasts like Orta, McRae, and Iorg. From the modern perspective, the entire sequence feels less like a professional baseball game than a session of Strat-O-Matic gone awry.

This is the inning’s charm, though. Language fails to convey how utterly beautiful the chaos resists distillation into one moment by which it can be remembered. Mazeroski’s homer; Carter’s homer; Buckner’s error; all definitive endpoints by which the gravity of their respective games build. The gravity point in Game 6? Denkinger, with an entire inning left to be played. Is it any wonder that the events that followed were disjointed, like the moment when an old video game glitches but you maintain some modicum of control over events on the screen?

There’s a market for the sublime aesthetics of the glitch. Not for everyone. Leave expectations of stereotypical greatness at the door, and sit to watch the beauty of a rational universe fall apart at the seams in the space of a baseball field. By the end, you may come to understand what I have: Denkinger’s call didn’t destroy the inning that followed, but was instead in a wonderfully resonant dissonance with the entire sequence of events.

Notes

[1] The Cardinals ended up hitting .185 for the series, which would be the lowest team average in the World Series until the 2001 Yankees hit .183 in their seven game loss to the Diamondbacks

[2] “Black Sunday” during the 1977 NLCS, or the Jeffrey Maier game in the 1996 ALCS particularly come to mind.

[3] After Brett just missed tying the game on a warning track flyout to right field, Frank White put down a surprising and well-executed bunt down the third base line. Pendleton barehanded the ball and threw off balance, nearly sending it into the stands. The next batter, Sheridan, takes a ball outside. White takes off without much of a lead from first, and Porter’s throw easily beats White to second. The replay however, is far from conclusive. Smith appeared to tag White’s knee during the slide into second base. The camera behind home plate, however, arguably shows that Smith missed White’s knee and only made contact with his chest. By that time, White’s foot had already touched the bag. The angle is by no means clear-cut, but it certainly appears that White could have been called safe had modern replay protocols been in place. This would have direct implications for the rest of the game, since Sheridan followed with a slow grounder past an outstretched Herr into right field that would have easily scored the speedy White from second. Not as dramatic or clearly egregious as the Denkinger call, but significant nonetheless. Had White been called safe, or the play overturned, the Royals would have carried a 1-0 lead through to the eighth inning, and started the epic bottom of the ninth tied at 1.

[4] In the age of HD cameras and satellite broadcasting, programs using old-style analogue tape transmitted via trucks and towers like ABC utilized during the 1985 Series look anachronistic at best. For some, this is detrimental to the quality of the game. For me personally, the bright colors and dull focus of the cameras only adds to the dream-like whimsy of the game itself, making it feel both real and unreal at the same time.

[5] To his credit, the long-retired umpire has embraced the notoriety, keeping a painting of the play and autographing photographs for fans. He even did a retrospective on the play for Time Magazine in 2014, as the Royals were moving toward their first playoff appearance since the 1985 championship season. Most recently, he appeared at a recent reunion of the 1985 championship team at Kaufmann Stadium, signing autographs along with the players.

[6] Both Hendrick and Green contributed to the 1985 team in important, albeit indirect, ways. After the 1984 season, Hendrick was dealt to the Pirates for Harper (who provided the key hit in the eighth inning of Game 6) and Tudor, who quickly established himself as the staff ace. Just prior to Spring Training in 1985, Green was traded as part of the package that brought Clark in from San Francisco.

[7] My favorite alternate universe hypothetical: let’s imagine, for a moment, how this sequence may have played out if Denkinger had made the right call on the Orta grounder. Balboni singles. Maybe Howser keeps McRae in to pinch hit, but knowing Sundberg’s reputation as a bunter, perhaps the manager goes ahead and asks him to bunt with one out and the speedier Concepcion on first. And perhaps Sundberg lays down exactly the same bunt that is snagged by Worrell. What does the rookie pitcher do? He would definitely have Sundberg out at first, leaving the tying run in scoring position with two outs. When I imagine this play in my head, trying to envision the entire field of play instead of just what is shown by the broadcast, one question always comes to mind: where exactly is Concepcion? What if Worrell, in his exuberance, gambled and tried to wheel a full 270 degrees to the rear and catch the lead runner at second? In a game full of passionate and odd hypotheticals, is it not apropos to consider the possibility that Worrell may have chosen the more difficult throw?

Often, this doesn’t end well. Case in point: Rivera’s errant throw to second on Damian Miller’s bunt in a similar situation during Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. Would you honestly expect a rookie like Worrell to make a more accurate throw in that spot that one as experienced as Rivera? In the intensity of the ninth inning, Worrell’s throw may have sailed high into center field, guaranteeing runners on first and third with nobody out. Let’s assume, though, that Concepcion simply beats the throw. From this point, the game would have played out exactly as it did – runners on first and second, one out, McRae pinch-hitting for Biancalana.

[8] Scully, the longtime voice of the Dodgers, recently announced his return in 2016 for his sixty-seventh and final season in the booth. He also called Game 6 of the 1986 World Series for NBC.

[9] Rookie of the year Coleman was injured by a rolling tarp during the NLCS and would miss the entire World Series. Some Cardinals fans have claimed that his absence was part of the reason that the team struggled so much on offense throughout the series. This argument, while popular, ignores several key factors. First, McRae sat on the bench for much of the series, as both teams played under National League rules for the length of the series (incidentally, this was the last World Series to follow this rule). While McRae was not as objectively valuable (0.7 WAR in 1985) to the Royals as Coleman was to the Cardinals, he was still clearly missed in the Kansas City lineup. It’s also unclear how much of a difference Coleman would have made to St. Louis’ offense on his own. In 1985, Coleman made his mark by stealing 110 bases under Herzog’s team building philosophy that emphasized walks and stolen bases. That being said, he also only accumulated a .320 OBP, struck out 2.5 times for every walk, and finished the season with a 2.4 WAR – hardly the second coming of Lou Brock. For comparison, his replacement Tito Landrum had a .920 OPS with a home run and two doubles in the series. It’s difficult to imagine Coleman topping Landrum’s performance under any circumstances. Losing him, while a setback, wasn’t the same as losing a Stan Musial or Albert Pujols. Basically, it was the equivalent of losing Omar Moreno (a solid if unspectacular lead-off man from the 1970s, who strangely enough appeared 24 games for the Royals in 1985) or Ned Hanlon (a Hall of Famer, but one who last stepped on a ballfield during the second presidency of Grover Cleveland).

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